17th September 1940. Hitler announces the indefinite postponement of Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the invasion of the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain. This is largely due to the failure to establish both an air and naval superiority that would have allowed for a quick decisive attack.
Giles Milton is a familiar name in the circles of those who are students of World War 2. A historian of note, he is the author of an eclectic mix of non-fiction, comics and books for children. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (full title The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – Churchill’s Mavericks: Plotting Hitler’s Defeat) is his tenth book, reaching the bestsellers list in the immediate week after its publication in 2016. It is an accounting of a group of exceptionally gifted people who had the opportunity to work with others like them to produce what could only be called miracles during wartime.
The tale of these secret heroes begins in the spring of 1939; Hitler has annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia through posturing and is itching to “liberate” the Germans in Poland, but Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, is adamant in his stand of “peace at all cost”. A small office in the alleyways of London disagrees with him, its head unwilling to let go of his prophetic premonition that it is only the beginning of a conflict that Britain is unprepared for. Section D, as it was known then, begins preparing silently for the war they know is inevitable.
Its first assignment, in response to Hitler’s building up his Kriegsmarine (German Navy), is to develop a more efficient replacement to the outdated and cumbersome depth charge with its abysmal hit ratio of one in every ten. Their requirement of something small enough to be carried by a diver yet powerful enough to sink a ship while clinging to its metallic body brings into their midst their master weaponsmith, Cecil Clarke. A manufacturer of revolutionary trailers and caravans in civilian life, Clarke was a veteran of the Great War, having served in the Engineer Corps and a genius with explosives. His interest with magnets and explosives leads him to develop the limpet mine, a device so immensely effective that it is used even now.
Clarke is approached for this project by Stuart Macrae, a magazine editor who initially serves as a liaison between him and Section D, and eventually becomes a part of it himself. The duo’s attempts at developing the mine are incredulous, with the use of slow dissolving sweets as a timer and condoms as insulation against accidental explosions – in short, using items that could be obtained at any civilian store to create a bomb that could be operated without difficulty. The success of the mine and its development brings Clarke in contact with Millis Jefferis, a maverick in his own right who would go on to head the Ministry of Supply, the SOE’s manufacturing facility, during the War.
Jefferis too has an affinity for explosives; more precisely, explosives used by a small force of fighters with the ability to hit vital targets behind enemy lines, causing immense damage and disappearing among the local populace without a trace. Clarke learned his skill in the trenches of France, while Jefferis was experiencing the effects of such a guerrilla force firsthand, as an engineer working with the Madras Sappers during the Waziristan campaign of 1922. Jefferis’ job at the time was building roads and bridges in the mountains of Afghanistan, and he saw the ease with which the guerrilla fighters could strike and disappear at will. His actions earned him a Military Cross, but the conflict changed something in him, and he “had taken a dislike to bridges and was anxious to do them an injury”.
His knowledge of building bridges gives him the unique perspective of knowing exactly how to bring them down with the minimum of explosives, a trait he employs extremely profitably in his role at Section D. His book of instructions, the literally titled How to Use High Explosives, is one of the three bibles for saboteurs throughout the Occupied Countries, detailing everything from the weak points of bridges to creating pressure detonators for blowing up railway tracks to individual anti-personnel mines. His book, and the other two – The Art of Guerrilla Warfare and The Partisan Leaders’ Handbook – authored by Colin Gubbins become the mainstay of their clandestine operations during the War.
Where Jefferis’ book details how to blow things up, Gubbins’ are more in line with his role as the informal leader of Section D, on the practical deployment, concealment and command of guerrilla forces, an area he has intimate experience with as an Intelligence officer fighting the forces of the Irish Republican Army. The assignment gives him a healthy respect for the wide-ranging use of guerrilla warfare, just like Jefferis, and allows the two of them to work seamlessly with each other over the equipping and deployment of such forces. However, it remains that everything they are doing till now is theoretical, with no men to train and no production facilities being allowed them.
Two factors change this in quick succession. One, Gubbins’ ragtag crew decides to infiltrate Poland in the last weeks of August 1939 to help create an underground; the attack by Germany on 1st of September has them escape by the skin of their teeth, but not without a vital piece of equipment that was to turn the tide of the war in its own way – a German Enigma cipher machine. Two, the section comes to the notice of Churchill, who has been named the First Lord of the Admiralty and has no compunctions about fighting dirty. He lends his support to their ventures, and it does much to cut through the red tape the section has until then found itself fighting futilely against.
Churchill’s confidence in the abilities of Jefferis and Gubbins pays off, and within a short span the limpet mines, spigot mortars and other similar devices of their invention are being shipped to Poland and North Africa for the fledgling resistances to use. Section D still have no men of their own to train however, a fact that is apparent when Germany invades Norway. Their plans to drop men by plane to make the Germans’ advance as slow and costly as possible is largely unsuccessful due to the inability of regular troops to both use the tools of a guerrilla force and to operate like them. Gubbins, who himself leads the men into and out of Norway with the German army nipping at their heels, decides that just like his unconventional weapons, he needs unconventional men.
He gets his opportunity when, following the invasion of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, Chamberlain resigns and is replaced by Churchill who charges him with creating a guerrilla force as a last line of defense on the islands itself. He is promised “a blank cheque” in terms of any resources required to create the force. Gubbins, having gotten his carte blanche, travels along the coastal areas most likely to be attacked, recruiting those with a ready knowledge of the area and the ability and willingness to live rough – people like gamekeepers, hunters, fishermen, and miners. Equipped with the weapons and explosives devised by Section D and trained to disappear into the landscape, the force is ready to wreak havoc among the invaders.
Although the invasion never takes place, the exercise provides valuable lessons for Section D. The need for a simple homemade explosive capable of destroying tanks leads to the development of the sticky bomb. The importance of stealth over speed has Gubbins recruit people from the far-flung armies of the Colonies for whom it is second nature. The use of psychological warfare, of having safe houses, of using the lay of the land for one’s advantage, all are put into practical application and prove their worth when Gubbins’ army goes to war behind enemy lines.
An isolated area in the Scottish Highlands is chosen to train the men and women selected for the Special Operations Executive, as it would come to be called. The instructors are the legendary duo William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes of the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife fame. Old hands at street fighting and riot control, the pair make ideal teachers for the kind of conflict Gubbins has in mind. Together, they hone the recruits to the razor’s edge, with forty-mile forced marches, underwater swimming and the all-important skill of silent killing. The success of the missions undertaken by the SOE is equally a testament to the dedication and expertise of Fairbairn and Sykes.
And the missions are such that they task the operatives to their limits and then some. As France falls, the first mission undertaken is the sabotage of a large power station in Pessac supplying electricity to the submarine pens in Bordeaux. Codenamed Operation Josephine B, it is one of the cleanest operations of the war. The men drop into France by parachute, infiltrate and lay Clarke’s limpet mines with the help of the local resistance in a way as to cripple the entire station for months and get out again unscathed. It lays the groundwork for earmarking lightly guarded yet vitally important facilities as these as targets in the overall war effort.
The SOE goes from strength to strength, with missions not just on continental Europe but even in Africa and later in the Far East. From stealing and scuttling German warships from a neutral port in Africa using a mere handful of men, to one of the most well-known commando attacks on the docks at St. Nazaire that involved more than 300 commandos, no mission is too big or too small for them. As Clarke creates more novel weaponry at the Brickendonbury Manor manufacturing facility, the operatives drop into more and more occupied territories, working with and training the budding resistance fighters in the art of sabotage.
Not everyone is on board with this style of fighting, however. The regular army with its old school officers looks down upon Section D and Gubbins, with some of them actively opposing their missions. Most of the times, given the direct backing of Churchill, this isn’t a hindrance, but he has to fight tooth and nail in other instances to get resources controlled by these officers, specifically planes and boats needed for dropping people behind enemy lines. Slowly, though, as the results of Gubbins army start coming in, the resistance towards them melts in almost all areas, with the air force being the sole exception.
The raids at Pessac and St. Nazaire are followed by even more spectacular deeds and two pivotal incidents that helped Allied victory can be directly attributed to Gubbins and his men. The first, codenamed Operation Anthropoid, is the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by SOE trained Czech fighters. Trained by Fairbairn and Sykes and equipped with specially modified weaponry by Clarke, the mission is one of the few instances of a State approved assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official.
The other is the destruction of a heavily guarded facility in Norway, producing heavy water for Germany’s atomic ambitions. With inside knowledge thanks to a mole in the plant and blueprints available for study, the team chosen is so efficient and stealthy that the guards only know about the attack after it happens. Despite the harsh climate, the frequent German patrols and the knowledge that it could become a suicide mission at the drop of a hat, the team succeed in a way that even General von Falkenhorst, the commanding officer of the German forces admires their professionalism, remarking, “This is the most splendid coup I have seen in this war.”
Gubbins is unconventional in another way. In a time when women were still being considered second class citizens, he has no qualms about recruiting them if they have the abilities he needs. In fact, he insists that the division handling almost every top-secret detail pertaining to the SOE agents and activities be staffed only by women, deeming them more trustworthy than men. Of the more than two thousand SOE operatives parachuted into France, almost fifty of them are women, and not all of them come back. They all receive the same grueling training and have the respect and admiration of everyone they serve with.
As the Americans enter the war, Churchill introduces Gubbins to William Donovan, head of the OSS. The two hit it off instantly and the OSS takes to guerrilla warfare like a duck to water. After initially training OSS agents in the Scottish training grounds of Messrs. Fairbairn and Sykes, they reach an agreement where Fairbairn travels to America to set up a training camp there. Clarke’s weapons too, are immensely appreciated by them, with the US navy placing a lot of orders for them to use in the brutal Pacific theater. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, with the SOE gaining access to a lot more resources than before.
Gubbins’ men also prove they can use words as effectively as weapons. One of the SOE operatives dropped into France gains an audience with Robert Peugeot, the head of the Peugeot car factory. The factory has been taken over by Germans and is now producing tanks and other war materiel and is a prime target. After the air force tries and fails to bomb the factory, the operative convinces Robert that he can effectively isolate and sabotage only the factory with his help, with no harm to the civilians. The Frenchman agrees, after he gets a demonstration of the SOE’s abilities and the resulting damage to the factory makes it inoperable for the remainder of the war.
Amid this, personal tragedy visits Gubbins; his eldest son is killed in action during the Allied assault on the Anzio beachhead in Italy. It strengthens his resolve to defeat Hitler at any cost, and he redoubles his efforts with the SOE. Everywhere from Greece to Albania to France, his agents are in place and striking at the enemy with every weapon at their disposal. Gubbins moment comes when his teams are to play an important role during D-Day. As the beach invasion is about to begin, the guerrilla fighters all over the country spring into action. Nothing worth destroying is omitted; vehicles are sabotaged, bridges are blown up, tanks are disabled. All this not only results in the Germans keeping some of their divisions within the country to combat them, but also in slowing down the advance of reserve divisions towards Normandy, allowing the Allies to establish the beachhead.
As the Allied offensive gains steam and the Germans begin retreating, the SOE has a lesser role to play, trained as they are more in the art of hit and run than frontal assault. They are nevertheless held in high regard, with testimonials from Eisenhower to Montgomery attesting to their importance in the overall effort. With the end of hostilities in Europe, one of Jefferis’ protégées is seconded to the Americans and is instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. But with the defeat of Japan, there is suddenly no place for Gubbins army, and the straitlaced mandarins from the bureaucracy have the last say.
Jefferis receives an offer of Chief Engineer in the Indian Army, which he accepts. Eric Sykes dies of a heart attack just four days after the Germany’s surrender. William Fairbairn stays back in America before going to Cyprus to train counter-insurgent teams. Cecil Clarke, appalled by the destruction caused by the atomic bombs, becomes a member of the Campaign for nuclear disarmament, lobbying against nuclear weapons. And Gubbins, the man who brought all of them together, moves from one civilian job to another, his only passion the creation and promotion of the Special Forces Club where the veterans of the SOE can come together.
Macrae, left in charge, is unable to stop the SOE from being shut down, an action that would have been unthinkable had Churchill been reelected. On 15th January 1946, five months to the day after the surrender of Japan, the SOE is dissolved at the stroke of a pen, with all records of their achievements sealed until the 1990s. The jealousy of the ministries extends to the point that they try as hard as they can to keep the SOE out of any official mentions for as long as they can. It is an ignominious end to an illustrious division.
Although an oxymoron, especially when used in terms of the British for whom terms like “gentlemanly warfare” and “fair play” seemed to exist only when dealing with other white men, the title of the book is particularly fitting. The seemingly unreal story of a handful of college graduates and civilians, both women and men, using guerrilla tactics to tie down and triumph over much larger enemy forces is all too real, and a valuable lesson for those willing to learn. The humble, unassuming beginning of what would go on to become a major thorn for the Axis powers in Occupied Countries has a legacy today in the form of most modern-day Special Forces, and according to a few moralists, modern-day terrorism too.
Whatever be your stand on the topic, it cannot be denied that the activities of the SOE had a significant impact on the outcome of the War. And it can be credited to the dynamo of a person that was Colin Gubbins. As his first recruit remarks during Gubbins’ funeral eulogy, “Whatever Colin Gubbins was called on to do in his long life, he not only did it extremely well, but he contrived in the process to make life extraordinarily rewarding and agreeable for those who had the good fortune to be with him.”